As an educator at a private high school in the Washington, D.C. area watching the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal unfold, I am not surprised. I’ve heard stories from colleagues about the angry helicopter parent emailing: “I’m not paying this much for a “B.’”
I even heard about a parent sending her child’s high school tutor along with the student to college, paying the tutor’s living expenses at an off-campus home all four years.
Sadly, I am not shocked parents are willing to scam a system designed to help those with learning disabilities gain equal footing, just to steal some extra testing time for their kids. I am not surprised student’s faces were photoshopped onto athlete’s bodies to create fake athletic profiles.
These actions align with a pre-existing misunderstanding certain parents have regarding how a meritocracy works. It suggests an unwillingness to let kids fight their own battles. I have watched students crippled by the lack of trust some parents show in their child’s ability to be self-sufficient.
All parents can understand wanting to give a child as many advantages as possible. I went to prep school; I know what it is like to belong to a privileged community where the focus on getting into an impressive educational institution is intense. While I was blessed with parents who let me know they would be proud of me no matter what, there were also parents who toted their children’s brand name alma maters around like a new Louis Vuitton added to their handbag collection. Yale. Stanford. Brown. These labels were flashy. They projected a very particular kind of success. A very specific kind of social capital.
It is impossible to not be affected by that kind of environment. The stress I felt junior year of high school about getting into college was high. Every paper, every test was something I could feel inside me when an assignment was returned with a grade. I was so incredibly over-invested. Even with all the advantages, I had been given, it was easy to feel as though I was falling behind the rest of the competition.
What Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin did was wrong. We need to ask, how we got here? While they and 31 other powerful, wealthy parents were bribing the system, low-income mothers like Kelley Williams-Bolar and Tanya McDowell were facing up to 20 years of jail time for lying about their residence in hopes of gaining access to better public school systems for their children.
The bigger picture can be lost on those belonging to more insular well-to-do white communities.
My own perspective was warped by the pursuit of the “Effortless Perfection” myth, a phenomenon I have been researching for an upcoming book. The idea of being “effortlessly perfect” emerges from a community-wide expectation, of mostly young women, that we should come across as “smart, accomplished, fit, pretty and popular, and that all this will happen without visible effort.”
It is all about the outcome, the image, not what it takes to get there. There is a sense that if you truly had what it takes, all this would just happen naturally. The focus is less on the outcomes and more on the titles, brands, and labels – on what you have, not how hard you worked to achieve it. Not what it took to get there. Not the skills you have to succeed in the future, or the confidence you built learning to overcome struggles.
As a high school teacher and Millennial, I notice the pressures created within such image-conscious environments and how they impact my students. High schoolers use Instagram and other forms of social media to project personas that were once reserved for Hollywood movie stars. The goal is to appear #flawless as though you just #wokeuplikethis. As a result, students are scrolling through each other’s heavily curated highlight reels wondering why their #unfiltered life does not look as fantastic as everyone else’s. Not only is kind of messaging a long-term mental health concern, but it is also a moral one. Today’s students are starting to believe that effort is a mark of inadequacy, something to be scorned.
But when the effort is taken out of the equation, ability and skill become qualities that either we have or we do not. If a young woman who believes intelligence (and other adaptable, elastic traits) is a fixed, inborn quality—as “Effortless Perfection” would have her believe—she then assumes after failing at a task that she must just be stupid (or ugly or unathletic or boring), rather than assuming she just needs to increase her focus and work harder. If she were to see her accomplishments as the fruits of her efforts, she would continue to feel empowered, even when stumbling over roadblocks here and there.
I know firsthand it only gets worse in college. Everything gets turned into an ill-fated race to gain different forms of capital that prove our worth in accordance with one dominant standard. The social scene gets turned into an economy of social capital (be in the “right” sorority, be friends with the “right” people, go to the “best” parties). Academic pursuits get turned into an economy of academic capital (have the highest G.P.A., make Dean’s List, get inducted into Phi Beta Kappa). Work opportunities become an economy of work capital (get an internship at a top company, assemble the most impressive resume).
We get sucked into a state of being that is all about establishing worth in a way that is recognizable by this system, and then we are shocked when we don’t feel fulfilled.
Since the scandal unfolded, it is important to ask what parents, schools, and communities do to contribute to the pressure children feel to strive for a very particular kind of success. How do we push back against such narrow standards for being recognized as “successful” and begin to acknowledge children for the diversity of their unique gifts and contributions?
As millions of students in high school and college across the country embark or return from spring break, maybe an assignment for all of us can be to discover how to return the focus to hard work, and extensive effort to create outcomes.
Perhaps we could find a way to focus not on perfection, but on the discovery in the process.
Caralena Peterson is a recent graduate of Duke University and is at work on her first book, The Effortless Perfection Myth. Follow her on Instagram @caralenapeterson